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Deportation Dilemmas

Developed countries inevitably attract migrants in search of freedom or economic opportunity; no less inevitably, some native-born citizens react negatively, occasionally with violence, as neighborhoods change and livelihoods become threatened by the influx of cheaper labor. The U.S., throughout its history, has hardly been immune to such stirrings; in Europe, political parties running on openly anti-immigrant platforms have enjoyed significant electoral success.

Relevant Links
A Promised Land?  Karin Fathimath Afeef, United Nations. More than 17,000 Africans entered Israel illegally between 2006 and 2009. Since then, an additional 43,000 are estimated to have entered. (PDF; 2009)
Myths and Facts   Yonatan Berman, Oded Feller, +972 . “Migrant workers,” “infiltrators,” “refugees,” or “asylum seekers”?  Who exactly are the Africans coming to Israel?
Israel Can’t Solve Africa’s Problems  Jonathan S. Tobin, Contentions. Those who are quick to accuse Israel of racism should remember that it went to great trouble and expense to facilitate the mass immigration of tens of thousands of black Jews from Ethiopia in the past generation. 
The Case for Deportation  Micah Stein, Daily Beast. While we may wish that Israel could offer asylum to every refugee, there is simply no way that Israel can deal with the volume of people fleeing Africa. 
Slavery and Sovereignty   Donniel Hartman, Hartman Institute. While we must remember the suffering of the oppressed minority because we were slaves in the land of Egypt, Israel must see this duty through the prism of her hard-fought political sovereignty.  
The Stranger Among You  Yehudah Mirsky, Jewish Ideas Daily. Ironically, the free-market and privatization policies championed by Benjamin Netanyahu may be working against the strong solidarity promoted by his nationalism.

Against this background, the news of a recent backlash in Israel against the country’s many illegal migrants was entirely to be expected. Things came to a head in late May in response to the alleged rape of an Israeli woman by an African migrant. As protests broke out, accompanied by scattered acts of violence, the government announced a decision to implement a policy of selective deportation.

But if the Israeli case sounds typical, several factors also make it unique. For one thing, although it has long been a magnet for foreign workers, Israel is a relative latecomer to the ranks of the world’s most developed nations, so that only in the last two years have the sheer numbers of illegal immigrants reached anxiety-producing levels. For another, since Israel offers more freedom and economic opportunity than do its neighbors, migrants once in Israel are unlikely to leave voluntarily. For a third thing, migrants from the Horn of Africa—the bulk of today’s newcomers—are able to enter the country by land through Egypt, evading any sort of border control.

Perhaps most importantly, as a small country and the world’s only state with a Jewish majority, Israel already has reason to be anxious about its demographic balance. In the face of millions of Palestinian “refugees” claiming a right to repatriation, it is little wonder that non-Jewish immigration is seen as an existential threat to the Zionist enterprise and indeed to the Jewish right of self-determination.

But that brings us to another unique factor: namely, the Jewish state’s predisposition to an open heart and abnormal displays of compassion. Jews harbor a long memory of estrangement and rootlessness—a memory that stretches back to ancient Egypt and that certainly was not diminished by the experiences of the twentieth century. On countless occasions, the Torah, the prophets, and rabbinic literature enjoin Jews to love and embrace the ger—the sojourner, the migrant—for we were migrants in the Land of Egypt.

Can Israel find a way to uphold Judaism’s concern for the stranger without compromising its demographic makeup? On the far Left, some who are largely unconcerned with the preservation of the state’s Jewish majority vehemently oppose the border fence with Egypt now being constructed, not to mention any move to deport illegal immigrants. On the other side of the political spectrum, some Knesset members have denounced migrants as a “cancer” and a “plague”; one went so far as to demand that anyone trying to cross illegally into the country be shot. These politicians have tapped into a sentiment that, according to a recent poll, is most pronounced among Israel’s religious citizens. Then there is Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who accused African migrants of spreading AIDS by raping Jewish women and also proclaimed—despite his own North African heritage—that Israel belongs to “us, the white man.”

These are the extremes; as against them, an emerging political consensus, running from moderate Left to moderate Right, favors a sensible middle way. The consensus is reflected in statements by senior government officials and even in government policy, which itself appears to be moving fitfully toward a mixed and balanced resolution.

In the case of today’s most neuralgic issue, the one posed by illegal migrants from Africa, a balance has already been struck by means, essentially, of inaction. On the one hand, the state acknowledges that wholesale deportation to an enemy or otherwise dangerous regime like Sudan or Eritrea, which together account for the vast majority of migrants, is a non-starter because of the risk to life and limb. On the other hand, granting any sort of de jure right of residence would only encourage increased migration. The upshot is that illegal migrants remain in limbo: although not granted work permits or a political horizon of any kind, they are also, for the most part, not deported. There is even an official agreement not to enforce laws prohibiting illegal migrants from working.

In practice, then, migrants arrested along the Egyptian border suffer a brief detention—during which little effort is made to determine the migrants’ legal status—and are then delivered to the central bus station in south Tel Aviv and simply turned loose. Their next stop is generally the nearby Levinsky Park, a de facto absorption center and the focal point of non-governmental relief efforts. Eventually, most migrants move out of the park into overcrowded apartments and find work as manual laborers.

This half-baked arrangement was developed before migration reached its present levels; in the face of today’s rapid growth, it has obviously proved untenable. Coming under sustained pressure for its failure either to foresee or to contain the burgeoning crisis, the government is slowly forging a more comprehensive policy.

Hence the border fence with Egypt: scheduled for completion by the end of this year, the fence is designed to slow migration to a fraction of its current levels. Meanwhile, a large detention facility under construction in the Negev will house migrants for up to three years while their status is being resolved. Prime Minister Netanyahu and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon have explicitly stated that migrants will not be returned to Sudan or Eritrea, but Israel has indeed begun to turn back illegal migrants from South Sudan and the Ivory Coast, both of which maintain diplomatic ties with Jerusalem and neither of which is deemed a threat to the lives of deportees. On the domestic front, the prime minister, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and Arab MK Ahmed Tibi have all condemned racist rhetoric and violent behavior toward migrants even as they support measures to limit migration and deport those who can be deported.

By making it more difficult to enter the country, and by indefinitely delaying access to its civic life, Israel hopes to deter those seeking economic opportunity alone. But bona fide refugees and asylum seekers will be properly processed and, if approved, granted some sort of permanent status. As for migrants already in Israel, the majority will also gain some form of recognition or amnesty.  Although the government is keeping mum about its intentions until the fence is completed, once that infrastructure is in place there will at least be no risk of 60,000 migrants turning into 600,000.

Before that happens, of course, the situation on the street could deteriorate. Still, there is reason to be optimistic that Israel will succeed in balancing the need to preserve its demographic character with the Jewish tradition of care for the sojourner—just as there is reason to hope that responsible government policy will have a trickle-down effect on a restive citizenry.

Elli Fischer is a writer and translator who lives in Modi’in, Israel. He is involved in a grassroots initiative to educate Israel’s religious community about African migration.

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DF on June 28, 2012 at 11:43 am (Reply)
The author, in this otherwise very good article, makes it appear that immigration is a typical right-wing, left-wing (or:conservative/liberal) issue. But it is not. As here in the USA, many upstanding conservatives support immigration because the cheaper labor it provides helps business and keeps costs down, while otherwise doctrinaire liberals dont like the religious or, in their opinion, mysognystic viewpoints the foreigners bring with them. Likewise, the majority on both sides agree that immigrants are a vital source of energy, but there is also widespread agreement on the need to preserve the country's culture. So, immigration makes for strange bedfellows. The disagreements are not so much ideological, but practical. That gives me hope that workable solutions can be found.
Marty on June 28, 2012 at 1:56 pm (Reply)
This is - putting it mildly - a real mess for Israel brought on by their inability to stop the people from coming into Israel in the first place... Sort of as stupid as giving the Arabs Gaza so in the end, Israel will have to be split in half when the Arabs get parts of the West bank..... Self inflicted wounds are the ones that are harder to solve since someone has to accept the blame for the stupidity in the first place... Hence both of the above are in the same way, hard to deal with....

First off the government allowed this mess to be a world wide press freeway. The public relations of this are just plane ignorant to say the least... Next instead of simply opening up a store front to help these people, through these store fronts work out how to allow them to leave the country with money as well as cooperation with other Nation's, they chose this stupid, "Lets pay then to leave"... Works fine if it is kept quiet; is able to get them all out, but NOT this way...

This can only be solved by Israel; another country or two that are willing to help Israel find a place for these people to be moved to rather then back to their own countries... Israel can't do this alone; the sooner they realize it the better for all concerned.... ( Israel should also be working 24/7 to build a wall/fence/blockade anything to STOP more people from coming into their country illegally)

As for the Gaza problem I used as an example, there again Israel needs to sit down with Hamas, find land deep in the West bank; move every Arab out of Gaza; into the West Bank when it will all be one Arab State in the future when the people involved decide it is time for peace... I for one would be more then happy to lock the leaders of both sides in a room; NOT allow them out until a peace treaty is worked out even if they are locked in for a year...
Jerry Blaz on June 29, 2012 at 3:52 am (Reply)
I am not surprized about the turn-about in attitude in handling refugees and foreign job-seekers from Africa. At first, Israel was visibly patting itself on its shoulder for doing what Egypt reportedly refuse to do, offer a refuge to refugees. Then the report about the alleged rape, and some politicians like Miri Regev called them a Cancer, and Eli Yishai, a cabinet minister, picked up rumors and spread unverified statements about many rapes that went unreported because the victims believed they would be ostracized as potential carriers of HIV (that's heavy stuff for anyone to throw out to the public, let along a public official), and then the riots, with refugees beaten, etc. Suddenly the refugees and foreign job-seekers were transformed into "infiltrators," a word long used in Israel for those who came over the border to do bad things.

I said I wasn't surprized because these were people very different from the majority of Israelis, and they had no means, and they found odd jobs and found themselves renting rooms where they double up and triple up and live in great congestion in the poorer areas of South Tel Aviv where enough problems associated with crowding and poverty existed already. Only when things started to get out-of-hand did the government start to think of building an place for them.

Israel has been importing foreign workers ever since the first Intifada when it stopped using Palestinian labor. The foreign worker program has its problems and exploitations, but if the foreign worker program could be integrated with the refugee program, there might be some respite for both the refugee and the Israeli government.

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